Sent Back

Cambodians convicted of felonies have spent years in indefinite INS detention. In March, the U.S. government struck a deal to repatriate them to Cambodia. Now 1,500 Cambodian Americans await deportation. What happens next?

By Tram Nguyen Dec 15, 2002

My family usually went out early in the morning to pick cans to earn some extra money. My dad works as a welder and all, but money didn’t come easy during that time. We also didn’t have a car either. So my mom and dad would ride their bicycle and pick cans. That’s when I remember they got me this bicycle. I got an old beat-up one. But it was okay because it was pretty fast, even though it was a little shaky here and there. I guess they found parts for it. So they picked it up and fix it up just for me.

—Prison Journal of Vee* (name has been changed)

Driving through Long Beach in his dark green, lowered Integra, Vee turns past 21st Street and Lewis Avenue near his house. "This is Snoop Dogg’s corner," he says, referring to one of Long Beach’s more famous native sons.

Vee loves this car, in which he has spent long stretches of time cruising the sprawling freeways and city streets of Southern California. His attachment to his car, he explains, also comes from the days when you couldn’t walk anywhere in the neighborhood for fear of getting jumped or shot.

"This is where I got shot." He rolls past a white apartment building. A group of Latino men are playing cards in front of the apartment’s four small garage doors. Thirteen years ago, Vee, age 15, was sitting in one of those tiny garages when a Mexican teenager rode up, Long Beach-style, on a bicycle and pumped two bullets into his leg and side. "I had to laugh," he says of the kid on the bike, "even as I was getting shot."

Vee, 28, is now back at home after almost 10 years’ incarceration and currently waiting to find out whether he will be forced to return to Cambodia. He is one of about 1,500 Cambodian Americans who face deportation because of a law requiring the removal of immigrants convicted of aggravated felonies. Up until March this year, Cambodia was one of the few countries (along with Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba) that refused to accept criminal deportations of its citizens. That all changed after U.S. secret negotiations pushed the Cambodian government into a repatriation agreement. In late June, the first six Cambodian deportees were flown into Phnom Penh.

The new policy has resulted in months of turmoil for the Cambodian American community. Most of those with deportation orders are young men in their 20s and 30s, many of whom only recently returned home from indefinite detention. It’s not uncommon to find situations like the one in Vee’s family. Both he and his sister have received deportation letters, while a cousin is still behind bars in INS detention. Vee mentions another relative who hung himself while inside San Pedro, one of L.A.’s main detention facilities.

Before the Supreme Court ruled last June that the practice was unconstitutional, the INS had held about 3,000 immigrants and refugees in indefinite detention because their home countries would not take them back. For criminal detainees like Vee and Kimho Ma, a Cambodian plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, the practice of indefinite detention meant that they had no hope of going home even after finishing their criminal sentences—sometimes the INS lock-up lasted longer than many of their original sentences had been.

"The government of the United States had charged me with a new crime—being born in a different country—and the sentence was life," Ma has said.

Cambodians, who numbered 171,937 in the 2000 Census, arrived mostly in the late 70s and early 80s as part of a wave of Southeast Asian resettlement—the largest refugee relocation in U.S. history. They had escaped massive violence, from America’s secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, to the Khmer Rouge genocide of two million people. In America, the survivors struggled with one of the highest poverty rates of any racial or ethnic group, exacerbated in recent years by harsh welfare reform policies.

Crime and Punishment

During those times my family often came to Long Beach to sell things like vegetables and chickens which we slaughter in our own back yard. I was always at this city. I didn’t even want to be there. I don’t know why. I just felt things weren’t gonna go right. Then one weekend in junior high, I got jumped into my gang. I didn’t want to. But I got nothing to lose so I joined the gang. From there on things start to come through for me. Now I start hanging around with the gangsters.

I carried my gun around so much. My family know about it and they can’t really say much. Because they know I carry it to protect myself. As long as I keep it safe and away from the young ones, my people don’t really say anything to me. I carry it in my waist or backpack when I’m going to school or out somewhere.

At 16, Vee shot and killed another boy, one of two who were chasing his nine-year-old cousin down the street. Their apartment had been shot up twice before by unknown assailants, a couple of months after Vee was shot in the garage. After watching the chase through his window for several minutes, he went to the garage to get his gun.

The boy, Vee later heard, was an 18-year-old Mexican American who had just returned to the neighborhood from prison. He had been looking for revenge for his younger brother, killed by an Asian gang. According to the police report, he died at the scene of multiple gunshot wounds. The murder was a by-product of the war between Asian and Latino gangs that lasted five years in Long Beach and claimed at least three dozen lives during the late 80s and early 90s.

"The thing happened so fast, you wouldn’t even believe it," Vee says. "It haunts me now, what I did. I took someone’s life—he was someone’s son, someone’s brother. I completely ended his life just like that. And it took my life away, it took my mom away."

Vee was convicted of second-degree murder, and began a period of incarceration that took him from juvenile hall to the California Youth Authority, and finally to San Pedro Service Processing Center on Terminal Island.

The issue of crime presents a complicated, painful challenge for detainees, deportees, and their communities. So much of the policies resulting in their impending removal stem from a political discourse that has increasingly equated immigrants with crime and, in recent times, with terrorists.

In what scattered media coverage there is of Cambodian deportation. INS officials invariably emphasize individual crimes of deportees—focusing especially on assault, burglary, rape, homicide, robbery, murder, and theft.

"If an individual has won refugee status, that is theirs for keeps unless they break the law," INS spokeswoman Karen Kraushaar told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "These individuals who have violated the criminal code have sacrificed their right to be here."

It’s been difficult for Cambodian community organizers to educate their own communities—let alone the general public—about the root causes of crime, and more significantly, the role of unjust punishment in targeting immigrants. Often overlooked in the hype about criminals is the fact that all the deportees have already served their sentences in state or local prisons, in addition to being held in indefinite INS detention.

"Arrests and convictions of immigrants of color in this country occur in the context of racist enforcement and penal policies," says Borann Heam, coordinator of the Khmer Freedom Campaign in the Bronx, NY. "To the extent that these refugee youth violated criminal laws, their criminality is a product of the conditions they were placed in. The supposed criminality of refugee youth is not imported from Cambodia."

As Vee would be the first to admit, his crime was a serious one. Does that mean he and others who have served their time should be deported to a country to which they have no tangible connection? This is the question that provokes a merciless response from prosecutors, a distorting sensationalism from much of the media, and torn silence from many communities.

Lyvan Sawn, director of the Khmer Community of Seattle King County, usually tells the media that these young men facing deportation indeed made mistakes, but they have done their time and have families now. He emphasizes the burden that deportation places on already struggling families in the U.S. The community association coordinated a protest march in June that drew almost 500 people, some holding signs that read: "Deport John Ashcroft, not Cambodians."

"The Cambodian community is really angry because they feel that sending them back is not fair," Sawn says. "This was the first time in our history in Seattle that we did protest. We are here as political refugees, we’re not supposed to be sent back."

Sent Back

When it was time for me to go up for my hearing, I couldn’t really understand what was going on. Whatever they say, I don’t even know. The only thing I seem to know is I’m not gonna go home for a very long time or probably never.

That weekend, my family (mom and uncle) came to see me and I felt really terrible for my mom. Because of the situation I had put her into this time. There’s no way I can turn back time. I just have to do what I have to do. But I can’t cry and I still don’t know why.

Vee’s mother, who struggled for years with alcoholism after his arrest, died of cancer while he was in jail. A slightly blurred photo of her, enlarged from a snapshot, hangs in the living room of their house. She has frizzy hair, sad eyes, no smile in this picture. When she was dying, Vee wrote to the INS district director asking for an accompanied visit to the hospital. But his request was denied.

In San Pedro, he remembers being held in racially segregated "pods" with detainees from all over the world—Mexicans, Armenians, Indians, Iranians, Egyptians, and Sri Lankans.

"Out here, you can feel hopeless but it’s okay. In there, you feel hopeless and it can drive you crazy," he says. "As time goes by and most of us can’t go home, you start feeling the sadness of everybody, the looks on people’s faces, the worry."

Vee decided to waive any claim to relief from deportation, on the advice of attorneys who told him repatriation would never be a reality and that he would get out sooner if he forfeited a lengthy legal challenge. After a year and one month, he came home to Long Beach.

"As people are being sent back, I feel there’s this sense of desperation," says Sarath Suong of the Providence Youth Student Movement in Rhode Island, which has mobilized a Cambodian community march on the INS office and organized local residents with deportation orders. "There’s a lot of talk about going underground, about seriously looking into the sanctuary movement, of looking into ways that these men can go to Canada or take sanctuary."

In October, the second group of nine or 10 Cambodians was sent to Oklahoma City, one of the hubs for transporting deportees en route to Cambodia. Kimho Ma, whose case resulted in the Supreme Court ruling which outlawed indefinite detention, was in that group of deportees, confirms his lawyer, Jay Stansell.

Human rights activists in Cambodia have formed a new NGO, the Returnee Assistance Project, to address the needs of deportees. Stansell is hopeful that Ma and others will be able to organize a project for deportees similar to Homies Unidos of El Salvador.

This is Home

Kimho Ma is scheduled to land in Phnom Penh later this week as we go to press. Stansell hopes that access to the Internet in a local cybercafe will make it possible for Ma to document his experiences of resettlement in Cambodia. But in the meantime, Stansell shares a story of his life that Ma had begun writing in the weeks before his removal.

"The memories of Cambodia and its bomb-scarred landscape and blood-soaked soil was far behind us," it begins. "We were no longer in the jungle of Cambodia… But we would soon be introduced to the concrete jungle of America."

It may not have been a welcoming one, but their new country nevertheless became home. As Vee weaves slowly through side streets, his Long Beach landmarks tell a certain story of his childhood and youth in the city. Around the corner is a run-down, pink stucco building, their family’s first apartment in America. Then Mahanna Street—"this is where I ran after I shot him." He revs up past the Khmer restaurant, where he hid after the shooting, and swings by Long Beach Polytechnic High School, where he was arrested a week later in health class.

Finally he stops at the park, with its 18-hole golf course. This is the place he goes these days to spend time alone. Every April, the Cambodian community holds its New Year celebration here, but today the park is full of black families picnicking.

"I love Long Beach," he says without hesitation.

"It’s hard facing deportation. I really have no American dream. But I’d rather die here than over there. My mom’s grave is here. My family is here. I got nobody over there."